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Monday, March 27, 2023

Chechen Kadyrov’s ‘Holy Jihad’ in Ukraine and Anti-Americanism

While Kadyrov's radical support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cemented his position in Putin's inner circle, his "holy jihad" rhetoric has drawn backlash in the Muslim world.

Information manipulation has become a key political tool of the Kremlin to gain internal public support for Putin’s war against Ukraine. Anti-Western ideology and a “holy jihad” of the Chechen fighters have been raised to a high level of Russian propaganda. Muftiates (Spiritual Administration of Muslims) of the Muslim republics of Russia substantiated its fatwa (decree by an Islamic religious leader) on holy jihad in Ukraine by the need to repel a military threat from the United States and NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-American sentiment serves as an Islamic theological tool with which state-backed muftis in Russia issue fatwas on holy jihad against Ukraine, NATO, and the “collective West.”

Muslim Fratricidal War in Ukraine

Muslims of post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus region participate in Putin’s barbaric war on Ukraine helping both opposing sides, Russians and Ukrainians, two close Slavic Orthodox nations. Islamic clerics and Muslim soldiers of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds seek to justify their participation in the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II relying on the theological teachings of holy jihad from the Quran and Hadith in favor of both parties.

Perhaps the most numerous and combat-ready Muslim military units, as the half-year war has proved, are the pro-Kremlin Chechen fighters known as “Kadyrovites” (meaning “Kadyrov’s men”) under the command of Chechnya’s brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Chechen rebel battalions of Sheikh Mansur and Dzhokhar Dudayev fighting against their fellow believers, on the side of Kyiv.

The Russian Defense Ministry does not disclose the exact number of the Kadyrovites in Ukraine. At the start of the invasion, Kadyrov, Putin’s “foot soldier” as he often describes himself, declared that more than 70,000 Chechen “volunteers” were ready to fulfill the order of Russia’s Supreme Commander-in-Chief to cleanse Ukraine of “Bandera scum, Nazis and Shaitans” (devil). On February 26, on the main square of the region’s capital, Grozny, he blessed 12,000 Chechen soldiers for “holy jihad” in Ukraine. However, in reality, only about 2,000 Chechen military personnel of the Akhmad Kadyrov Special Motorized Regiment of Russia’s National Guard, ‎Rosgvardia’s 249th Separate Special Motorized Battalion Yug (“South”‎), and the Defense Ministry’s Special Battalion Vostok (“East”) are currently operating on the frontline in Ukraine, rotating periodically.

On the other side, about 500-600 anti-Russian Chechen fighters of three main units – the battalions of Sheikh Mansur and Dzhokhar Dudayev, and the Crazy Pack assault squad – are fighting against the Kadyrovites and helping Ukraine’s armed forces. Many of these fighters are veteran rebels of the first and second Chechen wars and staunch supporters of Chechen independence challenging Moscow. At the beginning of the war, Akhmed Zakayev, the leader of the Chechen separatist government in exile, proposed to the Ukraine government to conclude an agreement with his Chechen Republic of Ichkeria to establish volunteer detachments of Chechens residing abroad to fight against Russia together.

In response, Chechnya’s authoritarian populist leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced a $1 million reward on the heads of two Chechen units’ commanders, battalions of Sheikh Mansur and Dzhokhar Dudayev, which is typical of his boastful nature. Kadyrov, apparently, could not dare hunt for the Сhechen Crazy Pack commander, since it is part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The backbone of the assault squad is composed of Chechen war veterans. Kazbek Kurazov, the Crazy Pack’s military leader, sees his unit not as an informal or illegal military formation, but as part of the Ukrainian army, which also includes Azerbaijani fighters.

How Putin’s Muftis Exploit Anti-Americanism for Holy Jihad

A tough ideological war has unfolded between opposing Chechen military units in Ukraine, which interpret the Quranic teachings on holy jihad in their own way in order to theologically justify their participation in someone else’s war. Despite his shallow and grossly simplistic theological knowledge, Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s brutal flagbearer, became famous during the war as the toughest religious mouthpiece and mastermind behind the Chechen holy jihad in Ukraine.

To inspire the Chechen troops, on March 4, on his Telegram channel with more than 2.6 million followers, Kadyrov weaponized the Islamic holy jihad doctrine, declaring that “the courageous and fearless Chechen fighters are waging holy jihad in Ukraine for the sake of Allah and continuing the path of Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov.” He mocked the anti-Russian Chechen fighters of the Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur battalions as “Chechen-speaking Shaitans” disgracing not only themselves and their teips (Chechen tribal clans) but also sacred Islam, defecting to the side of the satanic West, Bandera fascists and Nazis.

As the war raged, the Grand Muftiate (Spiritual Administration of Muslims) of Chechnya and top Muslim clerics, directly subordinate to the brutal authoritarian leader Kadyrov, tried to inspire the Chechen forces with holy jihad. The Chechen Grand Mufti, Sheikh Salakh Mezhiev, and advisor to the head of the Chechen republic on religious affairs, Adam Shakhidov, exploited the institutional capacity of the Spiritual Administration of the Chechen Republic to promote Kadyrov’s “holy jihad” in Ukraine, which leads to twisted fragments of Sharia.

Following Putin’s infamous televised speech to launch a special military operation on “denazification and demilitarization” of Ukraine, the Chechen Grand Mufti, Salakh Mezhiev, declared the Russian invasion a “holy jihad” on February 27, albeit it was not confirmed by issuing a Fatwa (Islamic religious decree). Chechen soldiers, according to his unfounded claims, were fighting “for the Quran, for Allah Almighty” and to save both Russia and Islam from “debauchery and all sorts of filth” spread by the West. “Russia protects Islam by allowing Muslims to pray freely and build mosques, while in Ukraine, which has become a hotbed of Western depravity, there is no such freedom of religion,” he explained as the reasons for the “holy jihad” in Ukraine. Therefore, “Chechens are waging a holy jihad against Western Shaitans (devil) in Ukraine seeking to destroy our beloved homeland,” he concluded. As a result, Mezhiev misinterpreted the theological legitimacy of “Chechen holy jihad” in Ukraine in terms of the Quranic sciences, drawing mockery from top Salafi-Jihadi ideologues in the post-Soviet space and from leading Sunni Islamic scholars outside of Russia. He has echoed the anti-American political rhetoric of Russia’s Putin and his key “foot-soldier” Ramzan Kadyrov, simplifying the Quranic holy jihad doctrine to suit their political preferences in order to justify a bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov also fanned the flames of “holy jihad” in Ukraine, declaring that Chechen soldiers “defend Islam” and “fight against the Western henchmen of Iblis” (the leader of the devils in Islamic mythology). He added that “until Putin stops us, we do not abandon jihad and will reach Berlin.”

Another official, Adam Shakhidov, an adviser to the Chechen leader on religious issues, regularly glorifies Chechen “holy jihad” in Ukraine, stoking anti-American sentiment in Russia’s conservative Muslim society. According to him, Muslim soldiers in Ukraine are Mujahedeen (Muslim warriors), and those who died during the special operation will become Shaheed (martyrs). He “found” a theological justification for the Chechen “holy jihad” under the leadership of the Russian Christian Army, which does not contradict Sharia law and is not Kufr (infidelity). He cited the example of the Medina agreement from the history of Islam in 622, which regulated the relations of Muslims with the Jews of Medina and joint defense against a common external enemy. In conclusion, as usual in Kadyrov’s authoritarian Chechnya, Adam Shakhidov eulogized Chechen fighters “defending the honor of Islam and Russia,” which “Shaitan forces led by the U.S.” want to destroy “through LGBT, Ukrainian Nazis and fascists.”

Thus, Ramzan Kadyrov, relying on Putin’s strong shoulder and the Kremlin’s unlimited financial support, has created a cult of personality around himself and his martyred father, and also exploited the ideological legitimacy of the Sunni Qadiri tariqa (Sufi order) to strengthen anti-Americanism in Russia and to boost his “holy jihad” in Ukraine. He turned Chechnya’s Spiritual Board of Muslims into an ideological and propaganda tool to consolidate his political ambitions and influence. While his radical support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cemented his position among the “war hawks” of Putin’s inner circle, his “holy jihad” rhetoric has drawn backlash in the Muslim world.

Fatwa Against NATO

The “holy jihad” ideologues orchestrated the voices of pro-Kremlin Muslim religious institutions to support the Russian military operation to “denazify and demilitarize” Ukraine. In Russia, the ranks of the Grand Muftiates and Muslim clerics are expanding adapting fatwas on holy jihad in Ukraine with theological justifications. One such pro-Moscow event was the Conference of the Spiritual Leaders of Russian Muslims in North Ossetia on March 16, during which a fatwa was adopted that theologically defined Putin’s war in Ukraine as a “holy jihad” and the Muslims killed in it as “Shaheed” (martyrs).

The fatwa laid out Kadyrov’s vision of “Chechen Holy Jihad” as an ongoing struggle for survival between good and evil, between traditional values and the vile ideas of Satanism, between the warriors of Allah and Iblis’ henchmen represented by the criminal U.S. trying to destroy Russia. The Russian military operation in Ukraine, the fatwa justified, is a forced defensive and preventive measure to protect Russia and all its citizens (including Muslims) from the real threat of the use of nuclear and biological weapons by NATO and the “collective West.”

Thus, the Conference theologically justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine and tried to rally the support of the country’s 20 million Muslim population. The pro-Kremlin choir about “holy jihad in Ukraine” was quickly backed by the head of the Central Spiritual Muslim Board of Russia Talgat Tadzhuddin, the Mufti of the Chuvash Republic Albir Krganov, the mufti of the Republic of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin, the Mufti of Bashkortostan Ainur Birgalin and other Islamic clerics of Russia. But Russia’s flagship region in support of Putin’s war remains Kadyrov’s Chechnya, spreading theological teachings about “holy jihad” not only among Russian Muslims but also in post-Soviet Central Asia and Caucasus.

Pro-Ukraine Chechen Fighters’ Holy Jihad

In response to a fatwa by pro-Moscow Islamic clerics, commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, Adam Osmayev, accused the Chechen leader Kadyrov and his Grand Mufti Mezhiev of deliberately distorting the Quranic concept of holy jihad. He recalled that the father of the current Chechen leader Akhmat Kadyrov being the Grand Mufti, first called for jihad against Russia, and then sold out himself to Putin, calling for a “holy jihad” against the insurgents of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Today, his son Ramzan is calling for jihad against Ukraine. Therefore, the “Kadyrov family jihads have always been corrupt, just like themselves,” he concluded. He explained the participation of the Chechen opposition in the war on the side of Ukraine with “the duty of Chechen patriots to defend their Homeland from Putin’s aggression, since not only the fate of Ukraine, but also the future of Ichkeria is being decided in the Donbas.”

Said Ismagilov, the Grand Mufti of Ukraine, who is of Tatar origin, decided to oppose pro-Kremlin Islamic clerics not only for his sermons and speeches on holy jihad, but also to inspire the large Ukrainian Muslim population by his personal example. Following the outbreak of the war, he changed his spiritual job in the Ummah mosque to a soldier joining the Ukrainian army to encourage the country’s Muslims to wage holy jihad against the Russian invaders.

Kazbek Kurazov, commander of the Chechen Crazy Pack assault squad, claims that his soldiers in Ukraine are continuing the holy jihad of their ancestors, who fought against the Russian Empire for the past 400 years for their religion and the freedom of Ichkeria. Another commander of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, a veteran of two Chechen wars, Muslim Cheberloevsky, also claimed his participation in the war on the Ukrainian side is a continuation of the liberation war of Ichkeria from Russian expansion and he believes in victory. Akhmed Zakayev, the head of the Chechen separatist government in exile, encouraged on social media all Chechens living abroad to fight alongside the Ukrainian government. He called the brutal Kadyrov the great Dajjal (false Messiah) who, for his political and economic gain, betrayed the Chechen nation, invented a fake holy jihad in Ukraine, and prays to Putin like a god.

Well-known Islamic scholars in the post-Soviet space such as the Mufti of Crimea Ayder Rustemov, the Deputy Grand Mufti of Ukraine Emad Abu Alrub, and controversial Dagestani preacher Abu Umar Sasitlinsky opposed the fatwa of Russian muftis on “holy jihad”. In a video message, they theologically asserted that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not a holy jihad, and the Muslims who died for Putin’s criminal ideas will not become Shaheed (martyr), but will go to Jahannam (hell). From the point of view of Islamic theology, Russia is an aggressor state, seizing Ukraine soil, and those Muslim soldiers in the Russian army are traitors to Islam, they concluded. Aider Rustemov called on the Russian Muslim soldiers to leave Putin’s criminal army, as the punishment of Allah would inevitably overtake them. One of the most influential Russian-speaking Salafi preachers in the North Caucasian Muslim community, Abdullah Kosteksky, now in exile in Turkey, sharply rejected Kadyrov’s “holy jihad”, calling such Muslim soldiers Taghuts (idolaters). The Quran forbids Muslims to fight under the command of Kafirs (disbelievers), he said, and declared it unlawful for Muslims to participate in the Ukraine war for the “Kafirs army”. Abubakar Yangulbayev, a prominent leader of the ADAT popular movement for the de-occupation of Chechnya from Russia, said that the “holy jihad in Ukraine is theologically contrary to Sharia, and the actions of murtad (apostate) Ramzan Kadyrov, who idolizes Putin, is shirk (polytheism).”

ISIS and al-Qaeda Denounced the Chechen Holy Jihad

Undoubtedly, the theologically distorted fatwas of the pro-Kremlin muftis about “holy jihad in Ukraine” could lead to intra-Muslim tensions, inter-confessional conflicts and the activation of Sunni terror groups on a global scale. Chechen leader Kadyrov’s speculation on theologically sensitive doctrines, such as holy jihad, has already provoked an outrageous reaction from the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, the arch Sunni jihadi rivals.

For instance, the leading ideologues and thinkers of two Salafi-Jihadi groups have responded according to a tough theological doctrine of holy jihad shaping their worldview and jihadist actions on the battlefield. Both al-Qaeda and ISIS strongly denounced the involvement of Chechen fighters in the Ukrainian conflict on behalf of Russia, urging them to stay away from this alien war of “crusaders” and “infidels.”

ISIS was one of the first global jihadi groups which officially commented on the Russian-Ukrainian war in a full-page editorial in its al-Naba newsletter, urging Muslims not to get involved in the “Crusader on Crusader” war. ISIS praised the Ukraine war as a “divine punishment” for crusaders for their disbelief in God Almighty, which the group hopes will destroy the “enemies of Islam.” Following an IS-Central editorial, its regional divisions, IS-Filipino and IS-Khorasan, recently warned Muslims against siding with a “crusader”. According to ISIS followers, theologically, Muslims shouldn’t favor one over the other or fight for one over the other.

The prominent contemporary Salafi-Jihadi cleric and al-Qaeda ideologist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (born ‘Isam Bin Muhammad Bin Tahir al-Barqawi) denounced Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters performing prayers among the Ukrainian forests at the beginning of the war. He stated that “the prayers of those who have not been cleansed off the tyrant’s vile will not be accepted” since they do not abide by the principle of monotheism requiring renouncement and non-support of the tyrants. According to him, a Muslim should not fight on behalf of the Russian “tyrant” nor to defend the Ukrainian “tyrant,” since both are guilty of Jahiliyyah (ignorance). Al-Maqdisi urged Chechens to not support a tyrant over another because at the end of the war tyrants will “throw away Muslims as toilet paper.”

Russian-speaking followers of ISIS and al-Qaeda from Central Asia and the Caucasus strictly behave within the tough theological line of their parent organizations. Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, online theological disputes have intensified between Central Asian rival jihadi groups, al-Qaeda-linked Katibat Tawhid wal jihad, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jamaat al-Guroba on the one hand and Islamic State in Khorasan on the other. The main question is whether the Ukrainian war is a holy jihad and whether fallen Muslim fighters will go to Jannat (paradise) as Shaheed (martyrs), as prescribed in the Quran. Russian-, Uzbek- and Tajik-speaking jihadists in their Telegram media ridiculed Kadyrov’s holy jihad in Ukraine and mocked him as a Taghud, a traitor to Islam and a slave of kaffir Putin. One of the Uzbek Salafists urged the Chechen fighters to commit a real God-pleasing jihad against Russia that is killing Muslims in Syrian Idlib. ISKP’s Al-Azaim Media Foundation and Voice of Khorasan in Russian also called on Chechen Muslims to make a hijrat (migrate) not to Ukraine but to Afghanistan, and join the ranks of the Islamic State.

Impact of Kadyrov’s Holy Jihad on Future Security

In conclusion, the Chechen leader Kadyrov’s “holy jihad” is increasingly exacerbating the already difficult relations between ordinary Muslims, tacitly opposing the war in Ukraine, and state-backed local muftis, generously adapting fatwas on “forced defense” from the “Satanic West at the head of the U.S.” It also tests the strength of relations between various streams of political Islam in the post-Soviet countries, which are going through most difficult times against the backdrop of the growing threat of Islamic extremism.

The “holy jihad” in Ukraine threatens to reopen the wounds of the recent migration of Central Asian and Caucasian radical Islamists to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to join the Islamic Caliphate during its heyday. Notable, in 2014-16, a record number of Russian-speaking radical Islamists joined ISIS – roughly 8,500 individuals – from Russia and five countries of post-Soviet Central Asia.

The “far-fetched” theological doctrines of “holy jihad” in Ukraine risk undermining key religious foundations of the Russian state by widening the crack between pro-Kremlin Muslim leaders and their fragile social bases. There is a danger that the teleological contradictions on holy jihad could lead to intra-Muslim conflict and anti-government mobilization in Central Asia and the North Caucasus, where living standards are among the lowest in Eurasia. A further escalation of the “Chechen jihad” could ignite ideological and sectarian antagonism far beyond the battlefield. If a spark of an inter-religious conflict ignites, streams of radical Islamists who have gone through a jihadi school in world hot spots may flood into the region.

Uran Botobekov, Ph.D.
Dr. Uran Botobekov is a leading expert on the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Movement, a research fellow, and a member of the Advisory Board of EU Modern Diplomacy. During his career, Dr. Botobekov combined public and diplomatic service for the Kyrgyz government with scientific research. At various times he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the head of the State Policy Department of Governmental Agency for Public Service Affairs of Kyrgyz Government and the Press Secretary of the Kyrgyz President. He also served as the Counselor-Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to Turkey and Ukraine. Dr. Botobekov regularly publishes books, articles, and Op-eds. He is the author of two books, several articles, and book chapters regarding Sunni Jihadism, terrorist financing, and radical Islamism. His research and analytical articles on militant Salafism in the post-Soviet Central Asian space were published in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Japan, USA, India, China, Vietnam, Germany, and Kyrgyzstan. His 2019 book, “Think Like Jihadist: Anatomy of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups,” analyzes the stages of formation and development of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other militant groups in post-Soviet Central Asia, as well as their joining global ISIS and al Qaida. At the same time, Dr. Botobekov contributed to media and research platforms such as CSIS, Modern Diplomacy, The Diplomat, The Jamestown Foundation, The American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst and Carnegie Moscow Center on counterterrorism and homeland security issues. He regularly advised governments of Central Asian countries on matters relating to radical Salafism and Islamist extremism.

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